Earth5R Research Article: Assessing the Sustainability Implications of Genetically Modified Foods: An Overview

Author Name: Insiya Eranpurwala

Earth5R Sustainability ID: E5R697T9M12E952

School/Institute/ Affiliation: Mithibai College, Vile Parle (W), Mumbai, India.

Publishing Platform: Earth5R Earth Journal (

Blog Content
In the modern era, technology is used in almost every aspect of life to make our lives easier. But does this hold true in the case of food technology, especially where genetic modification is used? What is genetic modification, and how is it done? Can their advantages win over their disadvantages? Is this method truly sustainable for the environment? If yes, then how? If not, then why? Analyzing how genetically modified foods affect sustainability is an important and complex field of research that explores the relationship between biotechnology, agriculture, and environmental preservation. Genetically modified crops, or GMFs for short, have drawn a lot of attention and discussion from around the globe. The main topic of discussion in this article is whether or not these genetically modified crops can meet the world’s increasing food demand, or if there are unanticipated risks to our ecosystems, biodiversity, and general well-being as a society.

To understand exactly what genetic modification is, we first need to know what genetically modified foods are. Genetically Modified Foods (GMFs) are foods that are obtained from organisms whose DNA has been selectively altered to produce certain traits that are not present naturally by mating or natural recombination. This process is referred to as “genetic engineering” or “genetic modification”. [1]

Process of genetic modification in crops

  • The required characteristics are first identified. Example: resistance to pesticides, herbicides, etc. An organism is to be found that already has these desired traits present in its genes. The organism’s genes with the desired characteristics are recognized with the help of pre-existing knowledge about the structure, function, and location of the chromosome. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to multiply such genes. But, in cases where the gene has not been previously studied, a more refined procedure is used. [1]
  • After obtaining various replicas, the desired gene is enzymatically implanted in a “construct”. This entire complex is then inserted into bacterial plasmids. These act as “manufacturing vectors,” enabling the gene to be replicated frequently within the bacterial cells. Bacteria are then plated out, and the plasmids are removed from bacterial cells. The augmented DNA construct is enzymatically cut out and is prepared to be placed into the host species. [1]
  • The desired gene is taken up by only a few plant cells after mutation, and hence, only genes that are resistant to antibiotics or weeds are used, to increase the number of mutated cells. A vector is incorporated with these resistant genes, which are then delivered to plant cells, which are next to genes that show constructive development. [1]
  • Tests are performed to confirm the introduction and inheritance of genes for plant mutations. The activity of the gene is detected by genetic testing. It is checked for proper insertion of genes, the number of replicas, if any replicas are damaged, or if insertion hinders the normal physiognomies of the plant. [1]
  • A health and risk assessment, along with a test determining the overall performance of the plant, is carried out. [1]

Environmental Impact

  1. Effects on soil and water
    GM crops, being tolerant to herbicides, create a large number of herbicide applications. This results in an upsurge of the most extensively used herbicides, i.e., glyphosate-based herbicides, and hence a diminution of toxic herbicides. There are many ways in which soil can come into contact with glyphosate. The most common ones are directly spraying the herbicide during post harvest applications, oozing herbicide from vegetation or roots, or death and decomposition of plant matter. Its addition to farmland water and other aquatic bodies has some effect on aquatic life. However, it is less harmful to microbiota if used at controlled rates but, if used in large quantities, may intrude activities of microorganisms at farm scale. [2]
  1. Effect on biodiversity
  • Some of them being herbicide-tolerant cause a complex ecosystem and a decrease in biodiversity. This causes contamination and losses in harvest. [2]
  • GM shows a reduced amount of density, biomass, and diversity of seed banks as compared to conventional systems. Food webs and food chains are hindered by sudden changes in habitat. Symbiotic associations are also agitated, which lead to complications in the food web. All these disturbances may lead to an increased use of pesticides. [2]
  • It can also act in an eco-friendly manner when weeds prevent soil erosion and endow habitation to organisms. [2]

Economic Considerations

  • GMFs have certain significant characteristics, like resistance to diseases, pesticides, and other punitive environmental conditions. This increases crop yields, thereby promoting agricultural productivity. This results in high output and revenue, which benefit the farmers economically. [3]
  • GMFs, which are tolerant to insecticides and pesticides, lower production costs for farmers as they do not require chemical pests for their production. [3]
  • The export and import of GMFs may be banned in some places due to differences in rules and consumer preferences. This may affect trade between countries, resulting in a decline in the economy. [3]
  • Demand for GMFs largely depends on the choices and preferences of consumers. If consumers are not confident about the safety of GMFs, the market for genetically engineered products could be economically affected. [3]

Societal and ethical considerations
The release of genetically modified foods into the environment raises various societal and ethical considerations. On one hand, they prove to be advantageous by increasing yields of crops, resulting in increased attention to nutritional needs, whereas, on the other hand, they raise concerns about their safety for human consumption as well as for the environment. [4]

  • The major concern regarding GMFs is their safety for human health. Although regulatory bodies claim that they are safe, people are still concerned about the long-term effects. [4]
  • There are debates about the informed choices of consumers. Consumers should be informed if the products they are purchasing contain GMOs. [4]
  • There are also disputes regarding our accountability to future generations as well as the environment. Altering the genetic materials of organisms may cause permanent consequences, so proper risk assessments should be carried out. [4]

Sustainability Metrics and Assessment
The sustainability of GMFs is basically checked by taking into account the environmental impact, economic feasibility, and social considerations. Many new sustainability metrics and assessments have been introduced. The most prevalent is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It involves the examination of the entire life cycle of GMFs for their environmental impacts. [5] A four-step process is carried out:
(1) Definition of its goal and scope [5]
(2) Life Cycle Inventory analysis (LCI) [5]
(3) Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) [5]
(4) Life cycle interpretation [5]

Earlier, this method was only used for industrial purposes, but later on, it also found its use in a wide range of agricultural activities. LCA is used for the analysis of various food products such as sugar beet, wheat, milk, beef, etc. This is a widely accepted practice, regionally as well as nationally, but may differ in types of cultivation and climates. [5]

  1. Goal and scope definition
    This is the most important step, as it determines the consistency of the entire process of LCA. [5]

1.1 Goal
Setting up the goal will set the stage for the rest of the analysis. This can be analyzed by four parameters: the application, the reason for the LCA, the proposed audience, and whether the results will be used in a comparative analysis. [5]

1.2 Scope
Based on the reason and proposed audience, the scope can be reformed. Scope should be limited to scenario modifications when used for comparative analysis. According to ISO 14044, some requirements that are particularly essential from an agricultural point of view are functional units, allocation procedures, life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) methodologies, and data quality requirements. [5]

  1. Life Cycle Inventory Analysis (LCI)
    This step involves the collection and calculation of the data for the GMF release. Water emissions, air emissions, energy, raw materials, etc. are some of the categories in which data is divided. Allocation and functional units are taken into account as mentioned in the scope. Land use change, water usage, soil additives, and livestock production systems are some of the most complex emissions in LCA. [5]
  1. Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA)
    The results determined in the LCI are evaluated for environmental impacts. This step is further divided into three sub-steps. Impact categories are first selected. These categories are then assigned the LCI values, followed by the calculation of possible impact indicators. Optional steps include normalization, grouping, and weighing impacts. [6]
  2. Life Cycle Interpretation
    This step is carried out throughout the LCA process. It is an important step for the determination of results. It ensures the proper implementation of inventory and impact stages according to the goal and scope. Issues related to the analysis as well as derivation of conclusions are also included here. A lot of ambiguity and variations take place in agricultural processes resulting in calculated values not being constant to actual values, hence, some actual system analysis should be done. [5]

Genetically modified crops can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on the environment. On the one hand, as they require less mechanical cultivation, they can result in lower carbon emissions and a decrease in the use of pesticides. Furthermore, certain genetically modified crops have been modified to withstand drought, which could help save water in agriculture. However, there are worries about the impact on nontarget animals in ecosystems and the possible emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds. GM food raises moral and cultural issues in society. Some contend that through boosting crop yields and
strengthening crops’ resistance to climate change, genetic modification can aid in addressing concerns related to food security. Some worry that a limited number of powerful firms own a disproportionate amount of seed, which could restrict access for small-scale farmers. Concerns have also been raised regarding the long-term health impacts of eating genetically modified foods, despite the fact that most scientists agree that the approved GM crops now available in the market are safe for ingestion by humans. Because genetically modified crops have the potential to boost production and profitability, they have been widely adopted economically in many nations. The financial rewards are not dispersed equally, though, and small farmers may have difficulties because of the high cost of acquiring genetically modified
seeds and the possible disappearance of conventional farming methods. It is crucial to take into account local contexts, laws, and public views in addition to these environmental, social, and economic issues in order to fully evaluate the sustainability implications of genetically modified foods. Making defensible decisions regarding the place of genetically modified foods in sustainable agriculture and food systems requires ongoing research and open communication.

In summary, there are many facets to the complicated and multifaceted problem of genetically modified foods, including aspects related to science, ethics, the economy, and the environment. Although genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offer promise in mitigating global food security issues through increased crop yield, improved nutritional value, and decreased reliance on chemical pesticides, their long-term effects on biodiversity, human health, and conventional farming methods also give rise to serious concerns. The discourse pertaining to genetically modified foods underscores the need for thorough scientific investigation, lucid labeling, and all-encompassing oversight to guarantee the safety of these commodities. It takes constant cooperation between scientists, decision-makers, and the general public to strike a balance between maximizing the advantages of genetically modified organisms and protecting human and environmental health. Furthermore, in order to make educated judgments regarding the cultivation and consumption of genetically modified crops, it is imperative to promote public knowledge and education about them. Going forward, it is critical that society hold candid discussions, advance scientific literacy, and support moral farming methods. Genetically modified foods may be able to help with future global food issues while respecting differences in opinion and protecting the environment if responsible innovation, thoughtful analysis, and a dedication to sustainable agriculture are applied.


  1. International Journal of Agricultural Science and Food Technology. (n.d.).
  2. Tsatsakis, A. M., Nawaz, M. A., Kouretas, D., Balias, G., Savolainen, K., Tutelyan, V. A., Golokhvast, K.S., Lee, J. D., Yang, S. H., & Chung, G. (2017, July). Environmental impacts of genetically modified plants: A review. Environmental Research, 156, 818–833.
  3. Garcia-Yi, J., Lapikanonth, T., Vionita, H., Vu, H., Yang, S., Zhong, Y., Li, Y., Nagelschneider, V.,Schlindwein, B., & Wesseler, J. (2014). What are the socio-economic impacts of genetically modified crops worldwide? A systematic map protocol. Environmental Evidence, 3(1), 24.
  4. Frewer, L., Lassen, J., Kettlitz, B., Scholderer, J., Beekman, V., & Berdal, K. (2004, July). Societal aspects of genetically modified foods. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 42(7), 1181–1193.
  5. Caffrey, K. R., & Veal, M. W. (2013). Conducting an Agricultural Life Cycle Assessment: Challenges and Perspectives. The Scientific World Journal, 2013, 1–13.
  6. Mu, D., Xin, C., & Zhou, W. (2020). Life Cycle Assessment and Techno-Economic Analysis of Algal Biofuel Production. Microalgae Cultivation for Biofuels Production, 281–292.

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